UK isolated over new virus strain as EU approves vaccine
LONDON - Agence France-Presse
Travellers were facing a nightmare holiday season on Dec. 21 with governments banning flights from Britain to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus, as the European Union approves its first vaccine and readies a mass rollout.
More than two dozen countries from India to Argentina suspended flights from the U.K. offering a bleak reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
"I’m basically just at their whim as to whichever restrictions they decide to impose. I could literally be trapped here," said Shaun Thompson, a Briton who flew to spend time with his wife’s family in Poland - one of the countries to have banned U.K. flights.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan tried to temper the alarm by stressing the situation was not "out of control", shortly after a British minister used those exact words to describe the new spread of the new variant.
While experts say there is no evidence the U.K. variant of the virus - one of several mutations - is more lethal or will affect the impact of vaccines, it may be up to 70 percent more transmissible, according to early data.
Concern over the mutated strain sent European stocks, oil prices and the British pound plunging and transport changes unleashed chaos for travellers and truckers ahead of Christmas.
"It’s inhuman not to give people more notice. My boyfriend is out in Turkey, I want to get back to him," said Beth Gabriel Ware, a 23-year-old Briton who recently came home to visit her parents - but is now among those stuck there longer than intended.
Thousands of people are still dying daily from the virus that has claimed at least 1.69 million lives since it first emerged in China late last year.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a crisis meeting after France announced a 48-hour blockade on both people and freight - just as companies are racing to shift merchandise before Britain finally quits EU trade structures on January 1.
Yet Johnson insisted that supply chains were "strong and robust", with delays hitting only a "small percentage of food entering the U.K.".
"Everyone can continue to shop," he told a news conference.
The U.K. has already begun to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the EU will soon follow after formally approving the jab on Dec. 21.
A rollout will begin across the bloc on December 27, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a video statement.
EU regulators earlier noted there was no evidence to suggest the vaccine would not be effective against the new variant.
The United States, which last week began administered Pfizer-BioNTech jabs, on Dec. 21 added the Moderna vaccine to its arsenal.
"I’m excited. I feel privileged," said Mandy Delgado, a Connecticut nurse who was among the first to receive a shot.
The U.K. strain has also been detected in small numbers in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands, according to the WHO.
Another variant with similar genetic mutations has been linked to widespread transmission in South Africa.
There is currently "no evidence to indicate any change in disease severity, but this is also under investigation", WHO said.
In the pandemic’s first border closure among Scandinavian neighbours, Sweden barred travellers from neighbouring Denmark, in addition to the U.K., because of the variant.
Elsewhere, Luxembourg decided to join European neighbours who are tightening virus lockdowns after Christmas.
Yet Hungary and Slovenia said they would relax some rules around the holiday to allow families to gather.
While Russia, Spain, India and others joined the list of countries banning flights from the U.K. on Dec. 21, Australia and the U.S. have held off.